amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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Updates from Puimisson

All photos by Flora Rey unless indicated

A continuing absence from Jeff, Puimisson and France. This blog was started in 2014 in order to share my experiences as a novice about winemaking spending time with my friend Jeff Coutelou, an expert. The pandemic has made that next to impossible. I am grateful that Jeff and his niece, Flora Rey, keep me updated with messages and photos. Fortunately, they are happy for me to pass them on and I continue to hope that I shall be able to join them soon, fingers crossed.

The vines are ten days or so behind the usual dates for véraison (when red grapes begin to colour) and this will mean later vendanges of course, usually 40 days after véraison. You will recall that April brought devastating losses to this year’s production with up to 70% being damaged by the frosts of April 12th. The grapes which there are look to be in good health though Jeff was worried this week about a weather forecast which could raise the risk of oidium (powdery mildew) due to a northerly wind. This meant he has been out in the vines in a week which was supposed to be a rest time spraying with organic treatments (and made more complicated and time consuming by a puncture).

Meanwhile the plants which are allowed to grow between vines, such as grass and flowers, have been cut down as they start to offer competition for water in the hot summer and will also compost the soils. It has been a very dry year, just a couple of storms worth of real rainfall since last year’s vendanges, so water levels are very low. There was some useful rain a couple of weeks ago to everyone’s relief.

Meanwhile the new plantations need care, they will have been watered as they will produce no crop this year. At the Ste. Suzanne plantation of 2020 young vines need tying up (palissage) a labour intensive job. These are Clairette vines producing their first grapes, not that they will go into the wines.

The week beginning July 7th was an intense period of bottling most of the 2020 wines, I recall long days of hard work in the past. There’s an intriguing new name for one cuvée and a topical inscription on the corks. The wines are apparently very good and I can’t wait to try them. The third cellar at Jeff’s is his stock cellar, always a good place to visit as you can see here.

Meanwhile there was a new delivery last week, a concrete egg. Many wineries now use them to age wines as the shape of the egg is believed to make for better fermentations and ageing, adding more energy and vitality. We shall see. When I asked Jeff what would be going into it he told me that I would see when I got there for vendanges and I hope that will indeed be the case.

Thanks to Flora and to Jeff.


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Frost

On April 5th Jeff Coutelou’s niece Flora Rey sent some photos of the joyful Spring period when the vines begin to bud. I always found this exciting when I was there full time and still do, the long winter over, the hard work of pruning completed and the new year’s wine in the first stage of arrival. I spoke to Jeff on the 6th as news broke of frosts around France and all was well in Puimisson. That very night the Languedoc was hit by severe frosts, way worse than anything forecast.

The results were catastrophic. Jeff reported on the 7th that around half of the vines were sufficiently damaged that they would produce nothing this year. A few days later as Jeff learned more about the effects of that awful night he sadly raised those estimates to around 70% damaged. At first it seems the buds have survived but over the next few days they lose the struggle to survive as they dry out and fall apart. I have seen frost damage at Jeff’s before but it only affected a few vines or rows on exposed sites. This time every vineyard has been hit.

There will be secondary buds but they will only lead to around 25% of normal productivity. This suggests that overall production will be well less than half of the normal year.

I have written about the effects of frost before but I strongly recommend this article by Jamie Goode to give an authoritative, clear explanation of how frost damages vines and how vignerons can attempt to prevent damage.

Last year was such a dreadful one for everyone that we all hoped things would be better. Sadly, for winemakers all across France, and for my dear friend, it has turned into a different kind of nightmare through no fault of their own.


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Au courant chez Coutelou

Topical and punning Carte des voeux

Long time readers may recall that every January Jeff Coutelou sends out a New Year card and update to his clients and customers. The card includes a summary of the previous vintage in vineyard and cellar and I pass on its contents as well as other bits of news from Puimisson.

The story of the 2020 vintage begins with the weather from the time of the previous harvest. From October through the winter the weather was mild with a lot of showery rain, there was hardly any frost and unfortunately not enough to ensure that the vines went into a period of ‘hibernation’, shutting down to aid their recovery from the hard work of 2019 and to ensure their health for 2020. Unfortunately, this has become the norm in recent years, climate change is leaving its mark. Budding (débourrement) occurred around the end of March, ten days earlier than the average.

The period from budding to véraison (when red grapes develop their colour) was a time of worry for Jeff, not just because of the consequences of COVID-19 but in the vines. The weather remained wet, indeed there was stormy, heavy rain from mid April to mid May – damp and warmth together bring mildew in their wake. Moreover, the very wet ground meant that he could not take his tractor or other machinery into the vines because they were so muddy. Instead he had to carry a sprayer on his back and walk through the vines in order to try and protect them from the mildew. I recall messages from Jeff, which I mentioned on here, showing his concern that 2020 would be a repeat of the widespread outbreak of 2018.

Fortunately the weather solved the problem it had caused in the first place. June was cool, too cool for mildew to flourish and then, suddenly, heat and wind dried out the vines and mildew. Flowering began on May 25th, still very early. A hot, dry summer meant that the vines, despite the long period of rain from October to May, began to suffer a little from drought. Véraison began on July 20th, once again, early. Harvest usually begins a hundred days from flowering and these early dates meant that vendanges would be nudging the bank holiday of August 15th.

In fact harvest began on August 19th, the earliest of any vintage since Jeff took charge of the domaine in 2002. They would last for just over two weeks. The hot, dry summer meant the grapes were in excellent health, conversely they were small. Those parcels which had been touched by mildew required severe sorting at the cellar door. In the last few days of the vendanges another problem flew in, a moth called Pyrale du Daphné (Cryptoblabes gnidiella) or honeydew moth as I described here. Overall, with small grapes and the damage from mildew and moth the volume of wine from the 2020 harvest was 20% below average yield.

photo from Alchetron

By November with two months in tank the reds had completed their fermentations and were ready to be blended (assemblage). The whites proved a little more troublesome. Just like 2019 they moved through fermentation but then seemed to falter and were completed like an exhausted runner falling over the finishing line. Fortunately this was a hiccup rather than a cough and the wines look to be very good. As well as the usual range of container to hold the wines Jeff bought in some barrels from Cognac which had recently been emptied, they will be used for the oxidative wines.

So, what are the wines likely to produce? In reds there will be Le Vin Des Amis for the first time in a few years, a welcome return, made up of Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache. Classe will be there from Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre, and there will be a separate single variety Mourvedre. A simple Vin Rouge of Syrah and Carignan sounds interesting and others will no doubt appear, Jeff is contemplating over a new version of Oublié, a wine made from the old, traditional varieties such as Morastel, Castets and Terret Noir and Blanc. The 2019 amphora wine is also now ready, a Syrah.

The name of the domaine is now Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou and so I should mention a new spirit, based on gentian from the Aubrac in the Haut Languedoc, some of it aged in barrel blended with the rest which was distilled. Finally, there will be Fine from 2014 in two versions, a 40% and a 64% aged in barrel.

Meanwhile in the vineyards. Jeff has planted more traditional grape varieties replacing grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet which have been grubbed up. Aramon Blanc and Noir, Servant and a grape called ‘Grappy’ which is taken from one vine in an old vineyard an unknown red grape. Jeff has purchased some abandoned parcels next to his Peilhan vineyard creating a 6 hectare parcel in the one place, which should make work much easier. He is planting hedges and olive trees around these new areas to secure their health and separation from conventional vineyards around. A 6 hectare oasis. Vines will gradually be planted over the course of a number of years to ensure the soils are organically sound and certifiable.

Meanwhile my friend Steeve spent some time in Puimisson in January to help out with pruning (taille). He felt honoured to be trusted with Rome vineyard, my favourite and sent me photos of his work which he has kindly allowed me to share. The aim is always to cut back the canes of the previous vintage and encourage others to develop this year, ensuring they are growing in a way to suit the overall vineyard, eg direction. In Rome, as the vines are gobelet, there is no real training of the vines as there are no wires. I hope with all my heart that I will soon be able to go and inspect Steeve’s work!


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Wine pairing and a mystery

Nothing to do with food I promise. That’s an avenue I never really venture into, drink whatever you like provided it doesn’t clash tends to be my motto. Reflecting on January wines consumed it occurred to me that the most interesting aspect came in pairs of bottles. After all, this of all years is not the time for Dry January.

Let’s start with Jeff Coutelou. I opened two bottles which I thought would form an interesting comparison. Both are Syrah, made in exactly the same way from the same vineyard. The principle difference is the vintage but that is also the point of the comparison. The two bottles are from vines on a north facing slope in La Garrigue. The soil is the ubiquitous argilo-calcaire, limestone with clay but this part of the vineyard has more complex geology with various types of soil as this, like Rome vineyard, was at the end of a moraine thousands of years ago and all kinds of rocks were left behind. The vines face north to protect from the direct Languedoc sunshine in afternoons, Syrah likes heat but not too much.

Syrah of La Garrigue

La Vigne Haute is the top wine made from the site, my own favourite wine too. This bottle was a 2013, the wine ages superbly with the vibrant fruit of youth settling and maturing into something gentler and much more complex. Natural wines don’t age without sulphur protection we used to be told, LVH is the perfect riposte to such nonsense. In some years Jeff feels that the fruit hasn’t been absolutely top quality. Perhaps the stream which runs well under the surface of the slope has been swollen by rain and the grapes become dilute. Or maybe a hot vintage stresses the vines, north facing or not. In those vintages Jeff makes a Syrah which is bottled under a different name so that LVH remains a guarantee of top quality. Nonetheless those bottles offer a really good wine, with fresh, fruity Syrah. In recent years Jeff has named this wine On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que. The bottle I opened was a 2017 and was pure pleasure.

Onto another pairing, Jeff and one of his best friends, Christian Venier. Christian’s vineyards and home are in the Loire in the Cheverny region. He and Jeff are firm friends with almost identical outlooks on how to tend their vines and make their wines. When Christian holds his annual weekend Portes Ouvertes event Jeff is always there, I have attended too and even hosted the Coutelou stand.

Les Couleurs Réunies 18 is a wine Jeff made for the first time in that vintage. The grapes come from over twenty varieties of vine, planted in Font D’Oulette which we commonly call Flower Power. The vines are still young and yields are tiny. Jeff fleshed them out with grapes such as Castets from Peilhan vineyard, blended in tank to ferment and mature and the result is LCR. The 2018 is on fine form just now, lovely fruit and complexity. To pair it up I chose one of Christian’s white wines, Les Perrières 2018.

With Christian and Jeff in Christian’s vines 2016

How is that a pairing? Well, just as LCR contains grapes of the most obscure varieties (see this article) Les Perrières is made of one I hardly recognise, Menu Pineau. This variety is also known as Arbois and Orbois, by 2011 only a hundred hectares grown around the world, mostly in the Jura and the area around Vouvray in the Loire. My copy of Galet’s Dictionnaire tells me that it is used mostly for adding alcohol and softening the acidity of other grapes by means of blending. Christian’s wine is made purely of Menu Pineau. There is a density to the wine, exotic fruit aromas and the wine tastes dry but it’s aromatic and almost musky. Two vignerons embracing old grapes, old ways of working and producing wines of character and authenticity.

Menu Pineau, Orbois, Arbois in Galet

Finally, to a less successful pairing. Last year one of my favourite wines was the Simplement Gamay from La Paonnerie in the Loire. I bought more and disaster struck. The corkscrew met little resistance, the cork was very soft and I knew what the wine would be like. Sure enough a slight mustiness in the glass and fungal, coarse woody flavours. Bad enough but then I turned to a wine which is a regular, a simple red from the excellent Valle Unite in Piedmont, Ottavio Rube 2018 made from Dolcetto and Croatina grapes. The first glass was exactly what I hoped for, fresh acidity, bright red fruit. A second brought disappointment. Mousey flavours were present at the end of the mouthful. By the third glass the mousiness couldn’t be ignored, I simply can’t drink mousey wine.

I had a second bottle so I opened that the following evening to see whether that too would be spoiled. Same wine, same vintage. No mousiness. I can’t explain it, please feel free to offer suggestions. Mouse is a natural wine issue, it disappears with added SO2. I have experienced it too many times and in various circumstances. It is not as simple as bacterial infection, I have known wines which are mousey when tasted after the bottles have travelled but not mousey in the cellar of the producer. This was a fascinating, frustrating pairing but leaves more questions than answers.

A healthy glass of the wine

If you can, try to find pairs of bottles, they do add another layer of interest to the whole wine experience.


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A sting in the tail

En francais

Vendanges is finished at Jeff Coutelou’s for 2020. That is the good news, with some lovely grapes and good quantities all seemed well. Then on Saturday Jeff messaged me to say that there had been a final twist, a proverbial sting in the tail. The problem was an insect though, admittedly, not one with an actual sting. I mentioned in the last post that there had been a little ver de la grappe (grape worm moth) problem. Well, that problem suddenly worsened in the last few days of harvesting.

Some Grenache, Cinsault but especially Mourvedre were affected. The latter is a later ripening grape and no less than 60% of the grapes had to be rejected and were lost. That is a huge loss. The culprit was not the usual grape moth Eudémis which lays its eggs on the grapes, the larvae and caterpillars then attacking the grapes and spoiling them. Jeff is used to those and recognises the problem coming.

This was a new moth to the area, Pyrale du Daphné (Cryptoblabes gnidiella) or honeydew moth. This menace has been damaging grape crops (and other fruits) in Tuscany and more recently in Provence. Clearly it has spread to the Languedoc.

Three or four generations of adults appear in any year with the biggest populations coming at the end of August and into September. They feed on ripe fruit juice and honeydew from aphids, things you would find in vineyards at harvest time. The eggs are laid in the bunch and the larvae eat not just grape juice but also attack the stems. The grapes empty completely and the spoilage damages other bunches with botrytis and rot. They are much more damaging to the grapes than the usual ver de la grappe, as Jeff sadly found with his Mourvedre.

Chemical treatments are available for spraying but Jeff and organic producers generally cannot use them. There are naturally occurring bacterial treatments such as Spinosad (made from crushed sugar cane) which organic producers are permitted to use. Otherwise vignerons can try to use pheromones which confuse the male moths so that they don’t breed, confusion sexuelle. Insect traps are another option. Italian scientists are also experimenting with the use of trichogramma. These are wasps which lay their eggs inside the moth eggs meaning that the moths do not develop. These have been used successfully in other fruit production and vineyard trials seem to be promising. Whether upsetting the balance of natural order is a good thing is open to debate.

Therefore, though the 2020 harvest will generally be a good one, there was a final problem. Mourvedre is used by Jeff, occasionally for a single variety cuvée but more often to blend in various cuvées such as Le Vin des Amis and Sauvé de la Citerne. Now that this new menace is identified Jeff will look out for it next year, a hard frost in winter would help to kill off the hibernating adults. Let us hope that this is a problem which we can look back upon as a curiosity, that may be looking at it with glass half full.

More about the problem here (article in French)


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Vendanges 2020 – Part 2

En francais

All photos by Flora Rey, you can find more of her work on Facebook

I had a chat with Jeff on Saturday to check on progress and plans for this week. Heavy rain (30mm) that day meant that harvesting would be a little more difficult on Monday as the cars and vans would not be able to get into the vineyards. However, that has been the only significant blip in this year’s vendanges (perhaps me not being there has brought good luck!). There has been little disease despite an outbreak of mildew back in June but Jeff was able to get on top of that before it became significant. Happily, he repeated that the grapes are in excellent condition.

Icare awaits his master

The other good news is that quantity is also good, which should mean more wine available for everyone. Remember that many of the 2019 cuvées are not yet released due to slow fermentations delaying the whole process of winemaking. Therefore, I would think it is likely that many of the 2020s will be held back too. Overall, though there will be plenty of Coutelou wines in the next couple of years. The rain of Saturday will also boost quantities a little more in grapes such as Grenache and Carignan which were the later ones to be picked. The Grenache is rich so the rain will help to make it more balanced as well as providing higher yields, it was a well-timed break in the weather.

Boris in early morning Peilhan

The only other issue, and one I had heard was an issue in other areas of the Languedoc, was vers de la grappe, the moth larvae which is hatched in the grapes and can spoil bunches as grape juice flows onto the bunch. Fortunately, the problem is not on a large scale though Jeff wanted to get a move on in finishing the harvest as the moths are now adult and will lay eggs if the grapes are still on the vine.

As most grapes are now picked, the hard work shifts to the cellar and the making of the wine, pressing, remontage, pigeage. Decisions about which grapes go into which tank, which might be mixed together and in what type of container, the cement or stainless steel tanks, amphora or barrel. The 3D puzzle in Jeff’s head, and spreadsheet, gets complicated.

Flower Power, the complantation of Font D’Oulette vineyard, continues to provide meagre returns, 8 cases this year after similar yields in the last two vintages. These young vines will take some years to properly mature and produce more fruit. The grapes were mixed with Syrah from Segrairals which was picked early. That combination was pressed on Saturday and will make a good, juicy, light wine.

The Cinsault of Rome was good but the whites (Muscats, Grenaches Blanc and Gris) of the higher part of the vineyard yielded little though that was partly due to some locals having helped themselves to some bunches probably as eating grapes. The few cases brought back were mixed with Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan and put into one of the amphorae.

The other amphora will be used for the various blanc and gris grapes (Carignan, Grenache etc) also from Peilhan.

Meanwhile the grapes picked have started to ferment well. Jeff is especially pleased with the Syrahs and the good news, for me at least, is that La Vigne Haute could well be made from La Garrigue. So, lots of positive news from Puimisson, the team is clearly working well and we can enjoy these excellent photographs to glimpse what is happening there.

I love this photo showing the team sorting the grapes together, a true image of vendanges teamwork


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Vendanges 2020

En francais

Jeff with an early case

I may not be there in person but I certainly am in Puimisson in spirit. Jeff has kept me up to date however and his niece Flora has taken some lovely photos and allowed me to share them. So what has been happening with the Coutelou harvest.

Before they began Jeff reported to me that the grapes were ‘magnifiques’, high praise indeed from a viticulteur, a group who are infamously pessimistic. The promise of 2020 producing something exceptional would be very in keeping, a year when nothing ordinary happens. The grapes ripened early however, problematically, at much the same rate across varieties. This means that there has been a need to get the grapes in as quickly as possible.

Normally, certain varieties ripen earlier than others and so it is easy to organise picking and plan it across the weeks of harvest. When they ripen simultaneously there is pressure to get them in before they become too mature and over ripe.

Fortunately, all has gone well so far. The white grapes were picked first, as usual, and came in with good acidity and around 13,5% alcohol. There was talk of bubbles being made, not an annual event.

Segrairals and Sainte Suzanne followed with Grenache and Syrah to the fore, the two grapes which provide the foundation of many of the Coutelou cuvées, Ste. Suzanne for example being the traditional home of Le Vin des Amis. A successful harvest with those two grapes means a successful harvest overall and relief for Jeff.

La Garrigue was picked on Wednesday 26th and Flora took some great photos of the picking of its Syrah, home of La Vigne Haute in good years. Regular readers know that this is my favourite wine of all so fingers crossed that this Syrah is up to standard, if not perfect it is used for other cuvées. Rome was harvested on Thursday and that gave me a pang of regret and disappointment, I miss my favourite vineyard.

With a new team working in the vines and in the cellar Jeff along with the regular team of Moroccan pickers things have moved along quickly. The new machine to help to sort the grapes has worked very well and saved time as well as being very accurate and efficient. Flora’s photos suggest at least some whole berry fermentations, the carbonic maceration technique which often makes fresh, fruity wine.

So far so good. Fingers crossed for what remains, some of the later varieties such as Carignan and Mourvedre. Something good may come out of this wretched year after all.

Top photo and videos from Jeff and the team.

All other photos by Flora Rey


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Back To The Future

Version francaise

I promised two updates from Puimisson with news with Jeff Coutelou but, first of all, a follow up from last time. Jeff tells me that fine weather has held back any outbreak of mildew though more rain is forecast this weekend. He cannot touch the soils and the grass and flowers which have grown around the vines as that would certainly trigger the mildew spores which live in the soil. This growth will compete with the vines for nutrients and, if Jeff has to leave it in place all year, for fear of triggering disease, then it will lower the yields.

All is not bleak however. Jeff was enjoying the sunshine last week and the vines’ lush growth. He has also assembled an interesting team to help work in the vines, local people who can work safely without travelling. There is an ex seminarian, a teacher, a young man wanting to learn about winemaking, a scientist and others. Sadly, not me.

Fermentations finishing, 2020

Last years’ wines stalled towards the end of their fermentations at the end of 2019 but the warmer temperatures of Spring rectified that, reawakening the fermentations and the wines are now completed and settled. The various wines have been assembled into the blends which Jeff wanted for the 2019 cuvées. They will rest, be bottled in the next few months but not for sale until much later in the year.

Part of the blending record, giving nothing away!

Most exciting though, there has been a lot of looking to the future. A new plantation of mainly Aramon and Mourvedre with smaller amounts of Aramon Blanc and Servant, an old Languedoc variety which is very little planted. Yet another addition to the Coutelou catalogue, reversing the long term decline in plantings of the grape (down to just 75 hectares in 2011.)

Other work has been done to put up the stakes and wires for plantations from the last couple of years, for example in the parcel next to Sainte Suzanne which had been fallow for years and in Segrairals, shown in the photo below.

And Jeff has been looking still further into the future. When he retires Jeff intends to move to St. Chinian where part of the Coutelou family had their traditional home. The 4 hectares of vines which were there have been grubbed up and replanted with the varieties of the area (and no doubt some typical Jeff extras) as well as trees such as oak and olive, shrubs and plants too. This was a major task and timed for Jeff’s birthday too as plants and vines are what excite him.

So, the virus has undoubtedly altered the way that Jeff has had to do things but, happily, it hasn’t brought the domaine to a halt. The vines are growing well, there will be a 2020 vintage. And there is plenty to look forward to once we are past this.


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Looking to the future

No particular theme to this week’s article, more a blending of various thoughts and ideas. I will be updating from Puimisson in the next article as Jeff Coutelou keeps me up to date with all that is happening there, which makes me happy but also sad not to be there.

Yesterday was one of those occasions when I had an article pretty much ready to run and then I clicked on a website and found someone had pretty much beaten me to it. This time it was an interesting article by Hannah Fuellenkemper on The Morning Claret website, which is one I follow and heartily recommend. It follows up the issue of natural wine certification by looking at not just what winemakers need to be doing for that (and whether it is worthwhile) but what they should be doing extra. I was thinking along similar lines, as we go through this pandemic crisis surely we should take the time to reflect on how we live and what we can do to make the world better in future. The world of wine included.

Getting every tiny part of every piece of equipment clean uses a lot of water

Fuellenkemper tackles issues such as the use of water, certainly an issue in the Languedoc that I have highlighted before. Jeff recirculates water and has his own well but that is not common. Water usage is high in winemaking, especially natural wines where equipment has to be thoroughly cleaned to eliminate any risk of contamination. She then criticises the use of cleaning chemicals which I understand but, believe me, pips and bits of grape skin get into the tiniest spaces and need to be cleansed. Sometimes a small amount of chemical might be needed to sterilise machinery, though it is then washed intensively with water to get rid of residues.

Heavy bottles, use of plastic are issues I have covered before, why some wines have glass weighing almost 1kg is beyond me. Sparkling wines do need thicker glass because of the pressure within but I have had far too many still wines in heavy bottles for no good reason other than to give an air of quality, not always matched by their contents.

Vines stretching everywhere, Oic Vissou in the background

One further issue raised is that of monoculture. Living in the Languedoc it still amazes me that there is such an expanse of vines, they cover a huge surface area, 223,000 hectares. Jeff is unusual in having planted many hectares of trees, shrubs and flowers to provide diversity and a shelter for beneficial wildlife such as bats. It has made him the target of vandalism in the past when in fact it is the way that vineyards need to be.

One bottle I drank recently also made me think of diversity. La Vigne d’Albert from Tour des Gendres in the Bergerac region has Merlot and the two Cabernets like so many wines from there but it also has Périgord (aka Mérille) and Abouriou, a little Cot (or Malbec) and Fer Servadou.

This no sulphites added wine was big and bold, a glass on the third day after opening still had tannin and an earthy, red fruit profile. However, it was the use of the obscure grape varieties which made it a noteworthy wine for me. Mérille / Périgord is only planted on about 100 hectares in the world, mainly in the Bergerac and Fronton areas. Abouriou has more planting (470ha in 2006), is another south western native grape and possibly has more impact on the wine than Mérille with greater tannins and colour as well as some of those red fruit aromas I detected.

As readers will know one of my favourite things about Jeff’s vineyards is the huge number of grape varieties, thirty or more. As well as complexity and variety I think that different types of vine has to be good for the vineyard, diversity and the fauna of the countryside. Moreover I believe there is a need to seek alternatives from the main grape varieties which dominate the world of wine but which may not suit vineyard regions in future because of the effects of climate change.

This table shows how the Languedoc has actually increased plantings of those dominant varieties this century at the expense of more indigenous, regional grapes, commercial demand winning over common sense and the future of a healthy vineyard region. So, I applaud Tour des Gendres, Jeff and all those seeking to put the earth and diversity first not the supermarkets.

Finally at a time of lockdown I have been pondering on travel and carbon footprints. Travel is one of the greatest pleasures and privileges of life, I have been fortunate to meet winegrowers in Australia, New Zealand and across Europe with other journeys not featuring wine (I know!). I read wine writers who are constantly on the move flying to countries for assignments, commissions and competition judging. Is that sustainable? Is it compatible with demands on winemakers to be more environmentally aware? Whenever and however we emerge from this crisis I do think we should all consider just how much travel is sustainable.

In the meantime I wish you all good health, stay safe.


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Coutelou 2019

A Coutelou update.

Every year Jeff sends out a New Year friendship card to regular clients and friends. The 2020 version highlights the ongoing protests in France about pensions, I particularly appreciated the mobility scooter with bottles in its basket. Inside is a résumé of 2019 and what happened in the vineyards and vendanges. Here’s a quick summary.

The winter of 18-19 saw a healthy rainfall of 400mm in October and November which went a long way to replenish the water levels. Budding began at the start of April, a normal date. Spring was colder and drier than usual and that slowed down growth and the date of véraison, when the grapes change colour. However, there was little or no disease other than a little coulure, where bunches have gaps. The major problem of 2019 came in June with an exceptional period of heat and the start of a very dry summer. This meant that as harvest began the grapes were struggling to reach phenolic ripeness when tannins are ripe and supple. Harvest lasted just over two weeks after starting a little later than normal at the start of September. The grapes were exceptionally healthy and clean, and very concentrated. “The winemaker is more than satisfied with the results achieved.”

The lack of rain (100mm from January to August) and the exceptional heatwave of June serve as a warning to what faces us with climate change.

After harvest things seemed to be going very well thank you. Plenty of nitrogen, good yeasts and healthy grapes, meant fermentation started well. But, there’s always a but, the wines have struggled to finish those fermentations. This has been the story across the region from other winemakers. Theories abound, the most likely is that the heat and dryness encouraged an excess of potash in the grape must, raising pH levels and so stopping fermentation. Soutirages, moving wine from the bottom of the tank to the top, helps to keep the tank clean and healthy and winter will help tartar to develop which will boost the fermentation when temperatures start to rise again.

The above means that it has been difficult to plan blending as even Jeff cannot be certain of how each tank will taste. However, there will be a wine of white and gris (Grenache for example) in amphora, an orange wine of Muscat d’Alexandrie, a Spring red and a Carignan, Castets and Morastel red wine. Plus the classic Coutelou cuvées with Syrah and Grenache to the fore.

These days the domaine is known as Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou so a word on the spirits. Gin, eau de vie, Kina will be joined by new bottles of an aromatic spirit and a mint based drink.

New planting of Clairette (right) and Macabeu

And in the vines? 200 metres of new hedgerows to replace those destroyed by malicious fires a couple of years ago, new olive trees planted too. A new parcel of Cinsault and a white parcel near Sainte Suzanne of Macabeu and Clairette were planted. So no retiring just yet!